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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
In 1776, fifty-six men risked their lives to defy the British and sign their names to the Declaration of Independence, but most Americans can’t name more than a handful.
There’s John Hancock, of course. And most people will correctly identify Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. But then the guessing begins: George Washington? Paul Revere? Thomas Paine?
The Declaration of Independence is America’s birth certificate, its most celebrated document, and a model for later declarations crafted by struggling peoples the world over. Its signers were men
who drew upon the best within themselves in the face of horrifyingly difficult circumstances.
They also lived remarkably interesting lives. True, most of them were privileged members of the elite upper classes, but quite a few were just the opposite. And all these men were impacted by death, suffering, and adversity. Many were orphaned; even more lost children and wives for no other reason than that, in those days, the flu was deadly. So was asthma. So was a bad bout of diarrhea. Yet all these men carried on.
Over the years, we’ve read newspaper articles and junk e-mails seeking to quantify and magnify the sufferings of the signers. Every July, their miseries are dusted off and trotted out along with barbecues and flags. It’s a shame that this is the only time of year Americans think about these men. But it’s even more disheartening to discover that most of the stories are just plain false.
In the end, it doesn’t matter that none of the signers were killed for affixing their name to the Declaration of Independence or that none died in battle. What does matter is that they came together one sweltering summer under distressing circumstances and, despite huge differences in opinion, backgrounds, and values, decided to band together and form a new nation. Doing so was, without a doubt, an enormous, life-threatening risk, and if the colonies had not been triumphan—and honestly, it’s astounding that they were—these men would have surely been, as they used to say back in the day, fitted with a “halter.”
As the Declaration of Independence so eloquently states in its last line, they risked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.
We think they are worth knowing.
A Clarification: The Real Independence Day
Happy Fourth of July! Wait, scratch that. We mean: Happy Second of July! Hold on, that’s still not right: Happy Second of August!
John Adams thought that future generations of Americans should celebrate Independence Day “with Pomp and Parade, with Shows, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” Adams omitted the burgers, hot dogs, and beer kegs, but his heart was in the right place. Oddly, when he wrote these words to his wife, Abigail, on July 3, 1776, he wasn’t talking about the Fourth of July. He was speaking of what he considered to be the nation’s true birthday: July 2, 1776.
The events leading up to that date were as follows: On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia proposed that the colonies break with England. Though the citizenry had debated this point for years, the thought of finally doing the deed shook the delegates. To calm themselves, they did what any political body would do: they postponed the vote for a month. During that time, a committee of five congressmen—Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman—was appointed to write the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson ended up doing most of the heavy lifting, with some editorial suggestions from Adams and Franklin.
Tensions were running high by July 1, the day of an “unofficial” vote. Only nine colonies supported the break. South Carolina and Pennsylvania voted no, Delaware was deadlocked, and New York abstained. But when the official vote came on July 2, twelve of the thirteen colonies voted in favor. New York abstained again; they were waiting for permission that was held up in Ye Olde Trafficke but promised they would likely vote yea in a few days. It wasn’t exactly unanimous, but Congress went with it anyway. The motion carried. A new nation was born.
For the next two days, Congress polished the language of the Declaration, and the document was officially adopted on July 4. But only two men—President of Congress John Hancock and his secretary, Charles Thomson—actually signed the document on that day. Shortly after, a local printer named John Dunlap set the words into type, and about 200 copies were distributed throughout the new thirteen states. When Americans saw the July 4 date emblazoned at the top of Dunlap’s broadside, they mistook the date of adoption for the day of the momentous vote. In fact, it wasn’t until August 2, 1776, that the majority of the signers affixed their signatures to a fancier version of the “unanimous” Declaration—the one displayed today at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
By August 1776, thousands of colonists were already regarding July 4 as the most important date in their fledgling nation’s history. To avoid upsetting this pleasant fiction, Congress sneakily backdated some official records to show that all fifty-six men had signed on July 4, 1776. Of course, this introduced a bizarre anachronism into the final record: the men who were present in Philadelphia and who voted for independence on July 2 were not the same group of men who signed on August 2! By the time August 2 rolled around, some of the original voters were out of town, fighting in the war, helping their states write new constitutions—or they had been replaced by entirely new delegates. Moreover, not all the delegates could make it to the big affair on August 2, and so they signed when they could get around to it—one as late as 1781.
But that doesn’t make for a tidy story, does it? No wonder Americans have wished one another a Happy Fourth of July ever since.
Table of Contents
A Clarification: The Real Independence Day 11
I New Hampshire
Josiah Bartlett: The Signer Immortalized on The West Wing 16
William Whipple: The Signer Who Fought for Freedom-with His Slave 19
Matthew Thornton: The Signer Who Led "The Nation of New Hampshire" 23
John Adams: The Signer Everyone Loved to Hate 28
Samuel Adams: The Signer Whose Brewery Went Bust 33
Elbridge Gerry: The Signer Who Gave Us Gerrymandering 38
John Hancock: The Signer Who Signed First 42
Robert Treat Paine: The Signer Who Objected to, Well Everything 47
III Rhode Island
William Ellery: The Signer Who Is Two Degrees from Kevin Bacon 52
Stephen Hopkins: The Signer with the Worst Penmanship 56
Samuel Huntington: The Signer Who Became the First U.S. President-Sort Of 61
Roger Sherman: The Signer Who Signed Everything 65
William Williams: The Signer Who Was Certain He Would Hang 69
Oliver Wolcott: The Signer Who Melted King George's Heart (and Then Some) 73
V New York
Philip Livingston: The Prince of New York 78
William Floyd: The Signer Whose Home Was Turned into a Stable 82
Francis Lewis: The Signer Whose Wife Was Imprisoned 86
Lewis Morris: The Signer Buried in One of America's Poorest Neighborhoods 90
VI New Jersey
Abraham Clark: The Signer Whose Sons Were Imprisoned 95
John Hart: The Signer Who Slept in Caves 99
Francis Hopkinson: The Signer Who Designed, the U.S. Flag 103
Richard Stockton: The Only Signer Who Recanted the Declaration 109
John Witherspoon: The Signer Who Was Also a Minister 113
John Morton: The First Signer to Die 118
Benjamin Franklin: The Signer Known throughout the World 122
James Wilson: The Signer Who Went Broke on Shady Land Deals 131
Robert Morris: The Signer Who Financed the War-and Ended Up in Debtors' Prison 137
George Clymer: The Signer Whose Homes Were Targeted by the British 142
George Ross: The Signer Related to America's Most Famous Seamstress 146
Benjamin Rush: The Signer Who Loved to Gossip About Other Signers 150
George Taylor: The Signer Who Started Out as an Indentured Servant 155
James Smith: The Signer Who Was Coy About His Age 158
Caesar Rodney: Delaware's Famous Midnight Rider 163
George Read: The Only Signer Who Voted Against Independence 167
Thomas McKean: The Signer Who Waited Five Years to Sign 171
Charles Carroll of Carrollton: The Last Signer to Die 177
Samuel Chase: The Signer Better Remembered as "Old Bacon Face" 183
William Paca: The Signer Who Dared to Acknowledge His Illegitimate Child 188
Thomas Stone: The Signer Who Died of a Broken Heart 192
Carter Braxton: The Signer Who Had Eighteen Children 196
Benjamin Harrison: The Signer Who Played Falstaff to Congress 201
Thomas Jefferson: The Signer Who Wrote the Declaration 206
Richard Henry Lee: The Six-Fingered Signer 213
Francis Lightfoot Lee: The Signer Who Lived in His Brother's Shadow 218
Thomas Nelson Jr.: The Signer Who Ordered Troops to Fire on His Own Home 222
George Wythe: The Signer Who Was Poisoned by His Nephew 227
XI North Carolina
Joseph Hewes: The Signer Who Worked Himself to Death 233
William Hooper: The Signer Who Feared Democracy 237
John Penn: The Signer Who Taught Himself How to Read and Write 241
XII South Carolina
Thomas Lynch Jr.: The Signer Buried at the Bottom of the Sea 246
Arthur Middleton: The Signer Also Known as Andrew Marvell 250
Edward Rutledge: The Signer Who Delayed Independence by a Month 254
Thomas Heyward Jr.: The Signer-Songwriter 258
Lyman Hall: The Signer Who Dragged Georgia into the Union 263
George Walton; The Signer Who Was Orphaned, Impoverished, Abused, Shot, and Imprisoned 267
Button Gwinnett: The Signer with the $700,000 Autograph 271
Text of the Declaration of Independence 277
The Miscellany of Independence 285
Selected Bibliography 295
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As a great fan of the musical "1776," finding a book that tells of the lives of these extraordinary (yet ordinary) men was a definite treasure. What I found most interesting was the information on those whose name was not as famous as Adams, Franklin, Hamilton or Jefferson. As a descendent of signers Roger Sherman and Stephen Hopkins, this book brings that short, but oh so important period of our history into focus. This is a must read for anyone who has interest in the founding of the United States!
If you're looking for a fun and interesting book about the lives of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, then this one's for you. The authors share facts about the lives of these 56 men in a humorous and enlightning way. Well worth the brief but entertaining time it takes to read.
So, you call yourself a US history buff? Not until you've read this delightful exploration of the signers of our nation's Declaration of Independence. Sure, you may know about Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson -- but Thomas Stone who died of a broken heart? Yep, until you've read "Signing Their Lives Away" you don't know nothing about who signed what! This is a touching, humorous and accurate account of all the men who put their lives, families and fortunes on the line as they committed treason to sign a piece of paper declaring independence from Great Britain. Pretty dangerous stakes for the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. A 'must have' for anyone with children, anyone who calls himself a patriot -- or anyone interested our country's history! Accessible and honest, it makes no attempt to denegrate -- only inform. What a concept in non-fiction! Congratulations to the authors, Joseph D'Agnese and Denise Kiernan
a wonderful book, full of information I never learned in school and it written unlike a history book (so it wont put you to sleep).
I bought the book for my husband, but he's found that he's had to share the book with me. I like the way I can select a particular signer of the Declaration and read about what happened to them after that tumultuous time. I started out with the one I am told I am a descendent of, and then went on to read about those from my state. After that, I went back to the beginning and am going through each state. I like that I can read each section in a quick period of time without losing track of the purpose of the book because I don't have long times to spend on reading.
As both a history buff and trivia expert, I was delighted with "Signing Their Lives Away"! It is fun to read, formatted in an interesting and attractive way, and uniquely informative. I was really impressed with the extent and detail of the research that went into this book. It covers many interesting aspects of American Revolutionary history that have been overlooked, or overshadowed by greater events of the period. It also dispels many myths which have been perpetuated about some of our founding fathers. Whether you are a historian, trivia nut, or just like fun books, I think this is a slam-dunk.
A great little book. Although it would be easy to criticize this book for its lack of attention to detail and its ignoring of many important aspects of the individuals lives, but who cares? It was not intended as a monograph or an indepth study. It is what it is...a fun look at a diverse group of very interesting individuals. I plan on including some of the details of this book into my teaching (i.e. the origin of the word gerrymandering and/or how Samual Adams was a most unsuccessful businessman).
Well-researched book on the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The authors imbued it with just the right mix of respect, humor and little-known tidbits to make this lofty, revered group seem human. Really enjoyed this read.
This is a good, albeit brief, overview of the 56 signatories of the Declaration of Independence. The authors try to use a few colloquial phrases, presumably to resonate with today's culture, which, in my opinion, detracts from the book. I would reccommend this book for anyone desiring a better understanding of the people who risked their lives by signing the document that declared our freedom from oppression.
This kind of irreverent, bouncy narrative is the kind of thing that gets people interested in history. The authors do a service by illuminating the historically obscure lives of most of the Declaration's signers, and by doing so in such an emminently readable fashion. It makes these men into human beings rather than wig-wearing monuments, and debunks some cherished myths about them. As each biographical sketch covers only a few pages, this is suitable for toilet or bedside reading. I would recommend this, particularly to those interested in early American history. It is suitable for upper elementary school and up (if you're willing to tolerate the odd swear word).
I enjoyed this book as a quick way to reference the Declaration of Independence (both the inside cover, poster sized when spread out and an appendix have the full Declaration) and to learn a little bit about each signer. The tone is not very scholarly, more like learning about the signing of the Declaration of Independence from the movie 1776, than from an academic tome. It is a good book to pick up and put down ( I call them read-along books), and just good to have on hand. I took it to a July 4th party (for adults) and each person present chose to read about a signer of their choice and share what they learned that they hadn't known before. We all had fun with it. And yes, Benjamin Franklin (and other signers) were known to sometimes use salty language.
short vingnettes of the men who signed the Declaration Of Independence.
Sogning Their Lives Away and its companion volume Signing Their Rights Away by the same authors is an excellent addition to the shelf of anyone who is interested in Early American History and the later lives of those patriots who signed The Declaration of Independence and/or the Constitution ofthe United States. These short (in most cases) biographies give the reader the results of their deeds whether their death came in poverty or in being elevated tothe highest elected office in the land. Both books are quick reads, and since the chapters are short, can be put down and picked up without great loss of continuity. I, however, read both from cover to cover in one sitting.
This is a superficial and casual treatment of a subject that has great possibilities but comes off and not-so-well informed barroom conversation.